Unlike his attackers, Kerry has seen the waste of war up close

May 03, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - John Kerry's campaign has suffered from a curious redefinition of patriotism and heroism - a revisionism that glorifies armchair warriors while denigrating combat veterans. His combat medals haven't quieted the Bush campaign machine, which sends its minions out to denounce Mr. Kerry as unpatriotic and anti-military.

It is an odd thing, but it did not start here.

In a Senate race two years ago, Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss defeated the Democratic incumbent, Max Cleland - a Vietnam veteran whose service left him a triple amputee - partly by challenging his patriotism. Mr. Chambliss doesn't want to own up to that now, but many remember his attack ads that featured photos of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and questioned Mr. Cleland's "courage." (Mr. Chambliss, by the way, avoided service in Vietnam because of what he says was a bad knee.)

This was not a smear reserved for Democrats. In the 2000 GOP presidential primary, the Bush machine did not hesitate before turning John McCain's record as a prisoner of war against him. Recognizing in Mr. McCain a military rM-isumM-i with which they could not compete, Bush strategists started a whisper campaign, insisting that Mr. McCain's years in the custody of the Viet Cong had left him "mentally unstable" and unfit for the presidency.

So it comes as no great surprise that the latest Bush tactic is to denounce Mr. Kerry for his activism against the Vietnam War.

Mr. Kerry was, as he now acknowledges, angry about the official lies, the ludicrous military strategies, the lives lost. His rhetoric, as he concedes, was over the top. But his crusade to end the war - based on his observations as a naval officer who had come under fire after volunteering for hazardous duty - was the very definition of patriotism.

That honorable definition may be returning to vogue as the war in Iraq grows increasingly unpopular. According to a New York Times/CBS poll, nearly half the country now questions the wisdom of the war. And nearly half - 46 percent - believe U.S. troops should come home immediately.

Mr. Kerry doesn't agree. Like Mr. Bush, he believes the United States must stay the course. Both men have suggested more troops may be sent to Iraq to quell the insurrection and create the stability needed to allow the Iraqis to elect a government. They may be right in their refusal to leave.

But in public, at least, Mr. Bush seems almost obscenely serene about his decision to send young Americans to die by the hundreds in Iraq. Never mind that he avoided combat in the relative safety of an Air National Guard "champagne unit" that sheltered other sons of the wealthy and well-connected.

His vice president, Dick Cheney, is similarly self-righteous, though he had "other priorities" during the Vietnam era. Perhaps it is mere coincidence that his wife, Lynne Cheney, gave birth to their first child exactly nine months after the Selective Service ended its ban on drafting childless married men.

Mr. Kerry, by contrast, has seen the waste of war up close. After the combat death of his close friend, Richard Pershing, in 1968, he wrote a letter to the girlfriend who would become his first wife, Judy: "If I do nothing else in my life, I will never stop trying to bring to people the conviction of how wasteful and asinine is a human expenditure of this kind."

He knows what it means to send other people's children off to die.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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